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Date: 19 January 2017 11:06
Gambia’s army chief has said he will not order his men to fight other African troops if they enter Gambian territory.
He spoke as Senegalese and other troops massed on his nation’s borders.
The Senegalese troops backed by other African forces are on standby to move into The Gambia as President Yahya Jammeh approaches a midnight deadline to stand down or face military action after refusing to leave at the end of his term.
“We are not going to involve ourselves militarily. This is a political dispute,” Chief of Defence Staff Ousman Badjie said, after eating dinner in a tourist district close to the capital, Banjul, eyewitnesses told AFP.
“I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight. I love my men,” he added, stopping to pose for selfies with admirers while dressed in fatigues, beret and green t-shirt, according to those present.
“If they (Senegalese) come in, we are here like this,” he said, making a hands up to surrender gesture.
Chief of Defence Staff Badjie is no stranger to controversy after appearing to declare support for president-elect Adama Barrow and then switching back to Jammeh.
He was recently barred from visiting Gambian peacekeepers in Darfur due to the sensitivity of The Gambia’s ongoing political crisis, which has seen Jammeh repeatedly refuse to step down despite losing a December 1 election to opponent Barrow.
“Our troops are on alert... The ultimatum takes effect at midnight,” when Jammeh’s mandate is due to expire, Senegal army spokesman Colonel Abdou Ndiaye told AFP ahead of the deadline.
Meanwhile, Ghana’s new president has announced he is sending 205 soldiers to The Gambia as part of a regional force to enforce the result of the country’s disputed election.
Nana Akufo-Addo said in a statement late Wednesday that he had “approved and authorised the deployment of a combat team of 205 troops, backed with the appropriate logistical equipment”.
Nigeria said it was contributing 200 soldiers and air assets, including fighter jets, to the regional force while Senegal, The Gambia’s neighbour, said its troops were “on alert”.
Mr Barrow was to take power today, capping weeks of tension over Jammeh’s refusal to quit.
Jammeh, who has ruled the former British colony with an iron fist for 22 years, initially acknowledged Barrow as the victor in December elections, but later rejected the result, this week declaring a national state of emergency.
With the country in deadlock, hundreds of panicked tourists were rushing to leave after Britain and the Netherlands issued travel warnings, with the small airport near Banjul struggling to handle the influx.
Although Barrow is holed up in Senegal until he can cross the border safely, officials insisted his inauguration would go ahead but there were no immediate details.
Speaking to AFP by phone, senior coalition official Isatou Touray said her team in Banjul had still not been told where the inauguration would take place or at what time, but was adamant it would go ahead.
And she welcomed a declaration by army Chief Ousman Badjie that his troops would not prevent Jammeh’s removal by force.
“That’s a very positive outlook from him, given that Jammeh’s regime is done,” Touray said.
“We don’t have to risks the lives of innocent citizens.”
A spokesman Mai Fatty for Barrow’s opposition coalition said anyone carrying weapons on the streets “shall face definite consequences, to their peril” in a Facebook post.
Soldiers and police would “certainly become a legitimate target” if they stood in the way of the new government, Fatty added.
Despite the buildup along the border, an army source told AFP Senegalese troops were “not yet” present on Gambian soil.
After 11th-hour talks in Banjul, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel flew on to Dakar where he met with Barrow for talks at which Senegal’s President Macky Sall was also present, the private RFM radio station reported.
It was not clear whether the Mauritanian leader had secured a deal or made an asylum offer to Jammeh.
The last-minute intervention by Mauritania came after several unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
Mauritania is not part of Ecowas and diplomats have previously reached out to the conservative desert nation in hopes of brokering a deal with Jammeh.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet later on Thursday to adopt a statement on west Africa that will reaffirm the demand for Jammeh to stand down, diplomats said.
Barrow and his team have said the inauguration will go ahead on Thursday on Gambian soil.
But the inauguration’s head organiser James Gomez said plans for the ceremony to take place in a huge stadium outside the capital had been cancelled.
On Tuesday, Jammeh announced a state of emergency due to what he said was foreign interference in the December election.
Speaking to AFP at the World Economic Forum in Davos Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty hailed Ecowas efforts to resolve the crisis.
“Ecowas has stood up, and they don’t always do that,” he said.